It’s been a week filled with headlines in Iowa City. The announcement of the program parting ways with Brian Ferentz stole the spotlight on Monday of game week. Questions about the future of Iowa football flooded the front end of the week. Iowa has four football games left this season, and its road test inside Wrigley Field on Saturday is nothing to underestimate. Northwestern will host their annual “Wildcats Classic” at the Friendly Confines in a unique setting for college football. Interim head coach David Braun has pointed the Wildcat ship in the right direction this season after a difficult offseason in Evanston. Northwestern is 4-4 and is just as much in position to win the Big Ten West as Iowa at this point.
Northwestern is two wins away from bowl eligibility. The Wildcats have found a sense of identity this season, stringing together wins in three of its last five games. Two of which came against Minnesota and Maryland. It was a 21-point comeback victory in which its offense tallied 492 yards to beat the Golden Gophers. In the Maryland win, the Wildcats put up 364 yards of offense and put together an impressive defensive performance.
Northwestern quarterback Ben Bryant has missed the team’s last three games due to an injury he suffered against Penn State. Brendan Sullivan has stepped in and has thrown four touchdowns with just one interception in those three games. The passing game has been the reason for the success this season, and particularly in their two Big Ten wins. Its offense threw the ball 51 times against Minnesota for 400 yards. Against Maryland, Sullivan threw the ball 26 times and was efficient with nearly 12 yards per attempt.
Defensively, Northwestern is in the bottom third of the Big Ten, allowing 351 yards per game. But the stats don’t tell the entire story. In their Big Ten matchups, the Wildcat defense has played very well. It forced six sacks, nine tackles for loss, an interception, and a fumble last week against Maryland. Iowa is allowing over two sacks per game this season and has lost 13 turnovers on the year. Northwestern is a defense that has shown it has the ability to force mistakes. Iowa has been known to make a lot of mistakes offensively this season.
Line of Scrimmage
The area of weakness for this Wildcat program has been the offensive line. Since the Minnesota victory where Northwestern allowed two sacks, it gave up seven sacks against Penn State, eight against Nebraska, and five against Maryland. Their front has allowed 35 sacks on the year, tied for 118th nationally.
Iowa’s defense averages just 1.6 sacks per game this season. It took until October for Iowa to pass three total sacks on the season. The defensive line has forced 95 quarterback pressures on the season against 309 passing attempts for about a 30% rate. According to Pro Football Focus, the number one pass-rushing team is UCLA. Its defensive front has produced 160 total pressures on 283 passing attempts for a 57% rate. Iowa is far from elite in this metric, but it has an opportunity to create pressure against a weaker offensive line in Northwestern.
On offense, an area where Iowa has opportunity is in the run game. Northwestern is allowing close to six yards per rush on first-down attempts this season. It’s also allowed 10-plus yard runs 21 times on first down this season on 132 attempts. That’s a 16% clip. Iowa’s run game is not anything to brag about, but it has created explosive plays this season. The Hawkeyes have eight 20-plus yard runs on the year, and six of them have come on early downs. The Hawkeyes present no threat in the passing game, so Northwestern is going to do all it can to take away the run. The battle at the line of scrimmage is going to determine the outcome of this game.
No Changes at Quarterback
Iowa will trot out Deacon Hill this weekend against Northwestern for the fourth straight game as a starter. He took over for the injured Cade McNamara, and has really struggled. In his three starts, he has yet to complete more than 43% of his passes. Hill has three interceptions, two touchdowns, and a total of 263 passing yards in the last three games. He also has five fumbles this season. Despite the performance, the coaching staff has yet to let another player take a snap.
Kirk Ferentz said in his weekly media availability that there’s a clear 1-2-3 in the quarterback room right now when asked about the starter. It’s tough to know how it’s being viewed that way because the number two guy on that list has yet to take a snap this season. His only collegiate experience was in the bowl game last year where he had a touchdown pass and 140 passing yards with no turnovers. It’s not much, but Hill hasn’t had that kind of performance all season. Is it really a clear 1-2-3 at quarterback? Still, there’s been no consideration to make a change.
Northwestern is a team that can continue to make Hill look bad. Using that same pressure percentage metric, Northwestern creates pressure on 35% of the opponent’s passing attempts. The Iowa offensive line is allowing six tackles for loss and over two sacks per game this season. Northwestern is going to get pressure on Hill, force errant throws, and probably create some sacks. If more of the same story begins to unfold under center, Iowa has to realize it needs to try someone else.
Getting You Set: Iowa vs. Northwestern, Prediction
Iowa has won the previous two meetings and three of the last four in this matchup. But this Northwestern team is different. It’s going to create pressure defensively and force mistakes out of the quarterback. For Iowa to win inside Wrigley Field on Saturday, it’s going to need to set the tone at both ends of the line of scrimmage. It starts on defense where the Hawkeye front has an opportunity to set a season-high for quarterback pressures.
Iowa – 16
Northwestern – 9